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Shashi Tharoor’s Op-Ed In Indian Express Demonstrates A Feeble Opposition

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No one can doubt how accomplished Mr Shashi Tharoor is – distinguished writer, quick-witted orator and accomplished in a field that is unique in the Indian political sphere – diplomacy. His speeches are widely watched and, for me, his finest hour was his Oxford Union speech on the debate about reparations to India.

Nonetheless, his column in the Indian Express on the June 2 was not so exceptional. It was downright underwhelming. Crores of Indians voted for the BJP due to frustration and dejection with the Congress and crores might, again. The platform offered by the Congress is nothing but a sign of the weak opposition that it is.

Redundant Opposers Or Alternative Government?

His first paragraph starts off by defending the Congress’s attacks on the Government saying, “Our attacks are based on our own convictions about what is good and proper for the nation; they are not merely reactive, but emerge from concern about the government’s straying from the desirable course. That, in turn, is shaped by the Congress’ decades of experience in understanding what the desirable course is.”

And what is the desirable course? Is it going back to the Hindu rate of growth? Or is it going back to Dr Manmohan Singh’s inefficient Government where high inflationlaggard GDP growthexchange rate in free-fall and the deficits of the twin fiscal and current accounts ballooned from 2010 onwards?

Mr Tharoor must be aware of strong oppositions who offer a genuine alternative starting with the Labour Party in the UK whose policies are significantly different from the Conservatives whether it is on nationalisation of water companies and railways or ensuring free bus travel for under-25s. Even the Democrats in the US counter the proposals set out by the President and the Republican party with vigour and propose different options to the public such as single-payer healthcare set out by Senator Bernie Sanders or taxing the rich rather than engaging in supply-side economics.

What does our version of a strong opposition do? It will do anything and tie up with everyone to attain power based on policies which are timid or appeasing. What party isn’t for ‘abolition of poverty’ or ‘social justice’? How is the Congress different here to the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Aam Aadmi Party or the Biju Janata Dal? A platitude and nothing else. Has the Congress clarified its stance on Aadhaar after the ‘right to privacy’ judgement? Will it dismantle the project or return it to government welfare schemes only? Or will it too, make it mandatory for everything like it was going to before the 2013 Supreme Court judgement? Has the Congress clarified what it will do to the GST? The Congress President wants a universal 18% tax slab. I could not disagree more. With indirect taxation (tax on consumption) being largely regressive, it would impact the poor and marginalised a lot more than it would to the rich.

Speaking of Mr Rahul Gandhi, the opposition leader is no Prime Ministerial candidate. Mr Gandhi does not seem to inspire confidence. As someone who values Parliamentary accountability, I was shocked to see he had asked 0 questions in four years and only participated in 11 debates. I expect a leader to utilise Parliament as a tool to keep the government in check; his 52% attendance is not much better. He does not offer anything new or strong, in any sense of the word.

Keeping aside the electoral losses in various states, the Congress Party as a whole, to me, is carrying on with an arrogance that they assume they shall be back in government due to the anti-incumbency sentiments against the BJP. An uncommonly arrogant stance. Another example of this is when Mr Tharoor talks about Hindutva, “Our Hinduism (for those of us in the Congress who are Hindu) is not Hindutva (which is a purely political ideology). When we speak of our Hinduism it is not in pale imitation of their bigotry and chauvinism, which we reject; it is to neutralise their communal appeal by pointing out that we too share Hinduism, albeit an inclusive version of the faith, rather than a bigoted one.”

Plain speak – “Our Hindutva is astoundingly inclusive whilst theirs is unbelievably exclusive.” So, Congress has ‘good’ Hindus? My religious interpretation is better than yours is a bad argument especially considering the evidence he points to this statement. His party’s ability to give tickets to Muslim candidates just because they are Muslim reek of an obtuse worldview where the seniority of the Congress still do not understand why their symbol is synonymous with minority appeasement and pseudo-secularism. Also, is there a special formula to improving the economic status of Muslims, or, does it happen simultaneously with the upliftment of everyone in an integrated manner? Saying Muslims are poor does nothing; it is similar to saying a significant number of Sikhs, Christians or Jains are poor. True – economic prosperity must hit all sections of society, but, how in the world is that not what the BJP is doing? Has the BJP gone on record saying the GDP growth must exclude Muslims? Pointing out a poor man’s religion is not productive in any-which way. It is purely a political point and a very obvious one at that.

All in all, unlike a government in waiting, the Congress seems to be a government eternally waiting for the BJP’s support to die down.

Achievements Galore?

Here is what was incredulous, “We can point to what we accomplished in 10 years of UPA rule — MNREGA, RTI, RTE, food security, millions of new bank accounts with real money in them. What can the BJP point to? The disasters of demonetisation and a botched GST?”

Although this is comparing 4 years to 10 – the BJP can also point out the IBCThe Benami Property ActRERAHighest road construction per day and Jan Dhan accounts, which too, had real money. Point by point, schemes and legislation can be rebutted. Further, 3 out of those 5 things of the Congress are achievements with collateral damage.

The RTE’s ‘no detention’ policy (Section 16), which means not holding back students despite getting poor marks, introduced a system of laziness with no incentive to learn. Lack of procedure for dealing with teacher absenteeism has also hurt the quality of education. The minority exemption is also troubling since there has been a surge of registrations of ‘minority’ schools to exempt them from the requirements of the RTE Act. Barring its religious discrimination, it also places the full burden on majority-run schools. The biggest charge against the RTE Act however, must be, its devastating effect on private unaided schools (non-minority) whereby, the reservation of 25%, was shifted onto them as well. They are compelled to reserve 25% of seats to socially and economically backward class students, which has been constitutionally challenged. Also, it put the requirements for a private school to be ‘recognised’ at a high bar. That threat of non-recognition has led to many private schools being shut down. Infrastructure requirements like nothing less than 2000 sq. metres means a small, efficient school cannot be run by a private entity. These norms were exempt for government schools. The tag of a minority appeaser is suited for the Congress.

MNREGA is a scheme with good intentions – right to work. However, with, delayed wage payments, unevenness across areas, middleman corruption, staff shortage and lack of awareness, especially because of its demand-driven nature has contributed to its failure. The CAG had shown declining employment generation per household from 54 days to 43 days.

The millions of bank accounts with ‘real money in them’ is the Basic Savings Bank Deposit Account Scheme which was changed from the No Frills Account Scheme. The problem of dormant accounts was prevalent there too. The former Finance Minister in the UPA Government, Mr. P Chidambaram himself puts it quite succinctly about the UPA’s scheme, “The biggest challenge was dormancy. Most zero balance accounts had a zero balance and no activity whatsoever.”

The problem persists but the amount of bank accounts opened were impressive under the Jan Dhan Yojana. A small step towards financial inclusion.

There has to be a concession that the Congress has achieved a lot, but, with the added disclaimer that its negatives far outpace its positives. More of the same which brought these achievements are not desirable.

Throwaway Sentences

A few sentences which stood out were, “The Congress is the party that liberalised the economy, but it also has a strong commitment to social justice. We want economic growth, but we must ensure that the fruits of growth reach the poor and the marginalised.”

Lest it never be forgotten why the Congress liberalised the economy (hint: balance of payment crisis). What should have been done in the 1980s was postponed till the advent of a crisis. The pure state-capitalist/socialists had to concede that opening the market was right. Inclusive economic growth – sure; but how? With nothing new, the old policies of the Congress will not mark a dent in the structural problem of income inequality which is prevalent now globally, as it was, then.

“We should speak to and lead the struggle for better public utilities like city transport, pothole-free roads, affordable housing, clean drinking water, decent education in government schools, adequate health care facilities, public parks, cleaner air and improved sanitation and effective waste management. We should use facts and figures to point out that the BJP’s performance in these basic challenges of urban governance has been woeful and that they do not deserve the votes of the urban public.”

This one is surprising.Mr. Tharoor speaks of issues that are exclusively state subjects, apart from cleaner air. Of course, that does not absolve the BJP of anything since they also rule a lot of states, but to point to these issues, when talking of the Central Government, he could have chosen better topics. Also, these ‘facts and figures’ do not offer much praise for the Congress either in terms of urban planning.

“The Congress has many tried and tested policies in response: Massive loan waivers, rural aid packages, increased funding for MNREGA and higher MSPs. Critics can call it “welfarism”; we must wear the badge with pride. Our poor need welfare.”

A laughable argument. Loan waivers do not work, except electorally. It is the middle class or the financial system (NPAs) that pays for it. It also does not address the fact that poor farmers, not wealthy, borrow from moneylenders and not banks. Rural aid packages suffer from gross implementation problems. Higher MSPs need to be balanced with efficient procurement. Welfarism might be a good thing, sops which keep the poor, poor, are not.

“The Congress party offers the nation a far more credible ideology than the BJP’s, and one that has been tried and tested. It should not merely be seen as an instrument for fighting elections every five years.”

Only partisanship would lead someone to empirically claim ‘tried and tested’. Has our economy grown the way we wanted it to? Have our farmers been given the necessary sustainable tools to ensure farming is viable as a profession? Is our infrastructure visible or robust? Has our electricity generation and distribution been without hitches? I do not wish to lay these at the feet of the Congress. However, no one should be willing to absolve them when they speak of returning to governance with the same ideas which have been ‘tried and tested’ to failure.

The Congress party needs to showcase, why – exactly why – a voter should go back to them. Mere dissatisfaction with the BJP does not work. Partisanship and divisiveness serve to be bred in the general elections if the major plank, however, effective of the Congress is that it is ‘not the BJP’. The lack of a strong opposition and one which arrogantly assumes, with an absent leader, that it is the default when anti-incumbency rises is disappointing. The Congress party has not changed. The Congress party does not learn from its mistakes. The Congress party is weak and certainly will not get my vote.

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